What we know about livelihoods and mobility in the Horn of Africa

Mobility has been a feature of life in the Horn of Africa for centuries. People have raised animals as part of their livelihoods, moving across the region, for much of recorded history. They’ve crisscrossed borders for business, to maintain relationships and to seek opportunities.

How do we currently think about livelihoods and migration in the region?

We tend to think of migration and mobility as different. They tend to involve different time-spans, and different relationships with crossing (or not crossing) borders. Often, after a prolonged length of stay, someone is no longer mobile and becomes a migrant. But clear-cut distinctions between mobility and migration can be arbitrary (and at times problematic).

What happens when time and borders get in the way of understanding people’s way of life?

‘Translocality’ builds on the idea of ‘transnationalism’, where migrants build up a set of relationships across national borders – these link together families, economic activities, social connections, and organisational, religious and political affiliations. But these geographically-dispersed activities and networks can also develop between people who have not crossed a national border, but move internally within a country. Greiner defines the concept of ‘translocality’ as “sets of multidirectional and overlapping networks, constituted by migration, in which the exchange of resources, practices and ideas links and at the same time transforms particular places”.

These ideas are particularly pertinent when we consider mobility and livelihoods. For a long time, development theory assumed a division between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ areas, populations and activities. But in Cecilia Tacoli’s words, this didn’t “reflect the reality of households’ livelihoods, which often include both rural and urban elements”. 

When we remove that artificial distinction, and add in migration and mobility, rural–urban livelihoods can be understood as the collection of livelihood activities that households can draw upon simultaneously, across rural and urban settings, through the act of moving. This movement might happen on a daily basis or for longer periods of time. 

At the same time, rural–urban livelihoods can also be seen through a translocal perspective focused on connected individuals, rather than activities. These translocal connections enable households to assume collective livelihoods that incorporate both migrants and non-migrants located in both rural and urban settings.

Add this together, and migration, mobility and translocality are fundamental features of rural–urban livelihoods. Without each element, households would be unable to engage in such livelihoods in the first place, or maintain them in the long run.

Refugees in particular face difficulties in accessing employment and therefore securing livelihoods due to restrictions on their movement and obstacles to obtaining work authorisation. Read our study on refugee employment, or watch our video on refugee journeys to employment and entrepreneurship in Kenya.

Which study is a good example of a different viewpoint on livelihoods and migration in the Horn of Africa?

For generations, household livelihoods in Kenya have been spread across rural and urban settings: these households have been described as the ‘trader-cum-wage earner-cum-shamba class’. But rural–urban livelihoods have grown in scope and importance in recent decades. 

Laikipia County, Kenya is a mixed zone of arid and semi-arid pasture land and sites suitable for high-potential farming, located at the intersection of diverse landscapes. Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce there, particularly land and water.

This has become a major concern, especially for marginalised groups. The environment of the County is changing rapidly, but it’s also a compelling place to study mobility in its many different forms. There are significant movements in to, out of and through the area: including nomadic pastoralism, displacement, state-endorsed resettlement programmes and labour migration.

In 2019, Caitlin Sturridge conducted 106 in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and life histories in Laikipia County with 133 respondents, including migrants, non-migrants and key informants. 

Read more about this study.

What inspires us to look at this differently?

Migration and mobility are common among Laikipian households from a range of different socioeconomic and livelihood backgrounds. Respondents in the study frequently told researchers, “these movements have become more often than before”.

While most people who move in contemporary Laikipia are young men, increasing numbers of women are now also moving for work, education and other opportunities, and not just for marriage. Younger and better-educated people are more likely to move, especially to towns further afield where they can find job opportunities. They find these in NGOs, the private sector, or in the public sector as teachers, health workers, police officers and civil servants. 

In the vast majority of cases, these movements happen within Kenya, either within Laikipia County or to neighbouring counties, such as Nyeri and Meru. Long-distance or permanent migrations across national borders occurred very rarely. In light of these relatively short distances, many respondents are able to return to their place of origin regularly. In many cases, they commute every day. 

Many movements were ultimately cyclical, linked to seasonal farming jobs (either on horticultural farms or neighbouring smallholdings) and in search of pasture during dry spells. People also moved in a cyclical way to take part in markets held on specific days of the week.  

While people tend to move from rural to urban places in Laikipia County, many respondents described bi-directional movements. In seeking employment or business opportunities, people moved in the direction of better markets and more clients in towns. But they also moved to rural areas to work on horticultural farms, conservation and tourism projects. 

When it comes to health and education, some Laikipians moved in the direction of towns to access better schooling or health care. But others moved to rural areas where schools are cheaper and environmental and sanitation conditions are better. Likewise, in retirement, respondents moved to both towns and rural areas. In some cases, elderly relatives moved in with younger relatives in towns where they could more easily access social welfare support. In other cases, elderly migrants, tired of the pressures of urban life, retired to rural plots.

Migration and mobility enable people to access resources and assets dispersed across different locations. A respondent in his fifties interviewed in pastoral Olampaa, Laikipia North described how he, his wife and children moved regularly between six locations. 

In doing so, they were able to access the different resources available in these rural, semi-rural and urban locations: whether pasture, water, markets, schools, health care or banks. Access to these different resources allowed the respondent’s household to undertake a range of livelihood activities, including subsistence pastoralism, chicken farming and trading, as well as access healthcare, education and banking services.

Mobility patterns that constitute a livelihood: assets, resources, activities and income derived from a mobile livelihood

Migration and mobility are integral components of rural–urban livelihoods, and so are the translocal connections that connect migrant and non-migrant household members. These connections enable them to stay in touch and support one another over time and across distances. Importantly, these support mechanisms also work in reverse: 58 per cent of migrants also reported receiving assistance from relatives who stayed behind. Most individual migrants received support from one to four relatives – on average two. 

A people-based, translocal livelihood is exemplified by a 68-year-old widow interviewed in the rural village of Baraka. She maintained translocal connections with five of her six children located in rural Ichuga and Baraka, as well as urban Nanyuki and Nairobi.

She had an annual income of only $240, from selling livestock products, and was reliant on growing her own food on a small quarter acre plot. The support she received from distant household members represented a critical livelihood strategy which provided financial security as well as social and emotional wellbeing. 

When asked what impact these arrangements had on her life, she replied:

“My wellbeing has improved. I am able to get food for my household consumption. I don’t struggle a lot with my life. My living standards have improved. I am able to pay my electricity bills and water through this support. I am now happy because I have peace of mind. My children have given me peace and reduced stress.”

How can this study help us think differently about mobility?

Much of the environment literature considers people’s movements in relation to one-dimensional climatic indicators, such as changes in rainfall or temperature. In doing so, it ignores the wider social, political, economic and historical context in which people move, all of which have a bearing on household livelihoods.

Researchers in this study asked respondents to identify the main challenge affecting their household. The majority (84 per cent) of non-migrant respondents highlighted water, including issues with its availability, access and quality. Water issues were also highlighted by 50 per cent of migrant respondents as the second most significant challenge affecting their household, suggesting that nearly 90 per cent this group experienced water issues, as either a primary or secondary concern. 

And yet, when asked to describe the reasons why they had decided to move, only 12 per cent of migrants highlighted water, with the majority framing their migration decision-making in terms of livelihoods. Indeed, 83 per cent of respondents said they had moved to look for better opportunities, either because their current livelihoods had failed to provide an adequate living or because they thought they could access better assets, resources and opportunities elsewhere.

This is not to say that water was not a significant factor in their decision to migrate, as it clearly emerged as a major challenge for most respondents. Rather, water in and of itself is not a direct driver of migration and mobility, and is better conceptualised in terms of its wider impact on livelihoods when it comes to understanding the motivations for moving. 

How can this study help us think differently about development?

When people move in the context of environmental change, this doesn’t inherently mean they are forced to move – instead, this study shows that necessity and choice combine in a complex way. This diverges from the popular image of ‘environmental refugee’ moving permanently across national borders or from rural to urban settings. 

The decision to move isn’t taken once and doesn’t only point in one direction. Instead, people facing resource scarcity move back and forth between rural and urban settings. Migrants and non-migrants maintain enduring connections across different locations.

Movements – whether daily mobility or long-distance migrations – can represent an important livelihood option for the growing numbers of households affected by natural resource scarcity. Interventions should support – rather than seek to thwart – these movements. Where opportunities for safe and legal mobility are constrained, we should seek to expand the political space and economic opportunities for moving.

However, access to mobile and diversified livelihoods is mixed, uneven and often unequal. Some households may be unwilling or unable to engage in mobile livelihoods in the first place. When they do, outcomes range from destitution, to survival, to improvements in wellbeing.

While some diversification may lead to sustainable futures for mobile people and their social networks, others may be less durable. This raises questions about the sustainability of rural-urban livelihoods that emerge out of necessity, rather than choice or preference. We should also question the sustainability of rural-urban livelihoods that create or exacerbate existing inequalities, or place additional strain on those involved.

Contemporary livelihoods and economies have become increasingly connected and collective. They are spread across multiple activities, and individuals in both rural and urban settings. In this context, development policy and programmes should consider the potential for interventions that target a particular person or area to have wider repercussions that can be both positive and negative. For example, support for migrants in cities may have wider repercussions for connected family members, communities or places elsewhere including in rural areas.

At the same time, we need to take care to avoid categorising livelihoods in a way that overlooks this diversity, particularly by treating rural and urban dwellers as entirely distinct populations.

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